For nearly any singer/songwriter on the planet, the idea of collaborating with Mark Knopfler would be the stuff of fantasy. But for Bap Kennedy, it was just the latest in a long line of projects with high profile, and highly respected, musical legends . . .
Bap’s first encounters with the record business were as rhythm guitarist, lead singer and primary songwriter for Belfast rockers Energy Orchard, with whom he recorded 5 albums. When the band left Belfast, they established themselves as legends of London’s live music scene. It was while he was in Energy Orchard that Kennedy first worked with compatriot Van Morrison, who gave the band several support slots to supplement their own hectic touring schedule of both the USA and Europe.
STEVE EARLE & DOMESTIC BLUES
When Energy Orchard split up, Bap had little time to rest, because alt-country superstar, and longtime Energy Orchard fan, Steve Earle soon contacted him, suggesting that he would produce Bap’s first solo album. Bap agreed, and soon found himself on the plane to Nashville, TN, where he would record Domestic Blues.
Earle was later to describe Bap as “the best songwriter I ever saw” and all of the songs on Domestic Blues were written by Bap except Angel is the Devil, which was written by Steve - years later, in June 2013, towards the end of Bap's set at the Belfast Skyline Festival, Steve Earle joined Bap on stage for a spontaneous performance of Angel is the Devil.
Domestic Blues featured several of Nashville’s most highly regarded musicians, including Jerry Douglas, Peter Rowan and Nanci Griffith as well as Steve Earle on guitar and backing vocals.
The album made it into the Top 10 of the Billboard Americana chart and Bap's song Vampire appeared in the soundtrack for Hollywood film You Can Count On Me - which won two awards at the prestigious Sundance film festival and received two Oscar nominations. Three songs from the album were used for cult classic movie Southie and more touring of the U.S.A. cemented the acclaim.
LONELY STREET, SERENDIPITY & MOONLIGHT KISS
Before recording his next album, Lonely Street, Bap got himself back into recording mode with a collection of Hank Williams songs, entitled Hillbilly Shakespeare, which had a limited release and was well received.
Lonely Street was an artistic project based on, and dedicated to, two of Bap’s childhood musical heroes, Hank Williams and Elvis Presley. In more ways than one, it was music that was made for the love of music, and this was reflected in the consistently positive responses from critics at respected music magazines including Q and Mojo.
Lonely Street features bass guitar playing by highly regarded bass guitarist Herbie Flowers, who is noted for his contributions to recordings by David Bowie, George Harrison and others, and particularly for playing the prominent bass line on Lou Reed's song Walk on the Wild Side.
Once again, one of Bap’s songs was used in a Hollywood soundtrack – this time it was ballad Moonlight Kiss, used for one of the key scenes in hit rom-com Serendipity (starring John Cusack and Kate Beckinsale), which has become a modern-day Christmas classic.
Bap would later dedicate the title track of the album to the autism charity Autism NI of which he is now patron (see below)
THE BIG PICTURE, VAN MORRISON & MILKY WAY
Bap’s next album, The Big Picture, was a return to working with Van Morrison, who had supported him since his Energy Orchard days. The Big Picture was recorded at Morrison’s studio. All the songs were written by Bap apart from Milky Way which Bap and Van Morrison wrote together.
The Big Picture features guest vocals from Shane Magowan, lead singer of The Pogues who sings the final verse of the song "On the Mighty Ocean Alcohol". It also features guitar playing from James Walbourne (guitarist - The Pretenders)
At the end of "Moriarty's Blues" there is a reading from the book Off The Road by its author Carolyn Cassady who is one of the leading figures from the Beat generation of American writers, through her marriage to Neal Cassady and friendship with Jack Keroac, Allen Ginsberg and others.
(Later Bap's song "Howl On" from his album of the same name would be influenced by Allen Ginsberg's epic poem "Howl")
More excellent reviews from Mojo, et al, cemented Bap's reputation as a songwriter growing "more mature with every release"
The time following the release of The Big Picture was to mark profound changes in Bap’s personal, as well as professional, life. Shortly after Bap brought his hard-living ways to an end, he worked with Mark Knopfler for the first time – appearing as a special guest for Knopfler’s tour of the USA and Europe, including five nights at the Royal Albert Hall, London.
BANISH THE BLUE DAYS & AUTISM NI
It was also during this period that Bap met his future wife, Brenda (Boyd) Kennedy, an artist and songwriter herself who had written several bestselling books on Autism and Asperger Syndrome (under her previous name of Brenda Boyd) Bap also produced Brenda’s album Banish the Blue Days.
Brenda is today the bass player in Bap's band. She also sings harmonies and contributed to both Howl On and The Sailor's Revenge. These days she tours with Bap internationally.
Bap was also honoured during this period to become patron of Autism NI, which he had become involved with through Brenda.
Bap recorded his next album Howl On in his native Northern Ireland for the first time in his solo career. As with Lonely Street, he returned to writing a series of songs on a subject that had fascinated him in childhood. This time, it was a look at his youthful love for all things American, and in particular the story of the moon landings.
Bap's inspiration for most of the songs on Howl On came forty years earlier when he was a seven year old boy living in Belfast and saw on TV the Apollo 11 astronauts landing on the moon. A month later, Jimi Hendrix's appearance as the final act at the Woodstock Festival with a performance of "Hey Joe" served as further inspiration for Bap - Hey Joe is the only song on Howl On which was not written by Bap; and Henry McCullough, who plays guitar on the track is the only Irishman who played at Woodstock !
The songs on Howl On reflect the Apollo Missions - not from the perspective of a technological feat, but as a moment in the lives of the real people who worked on the Apollo program. The album is a collection of human stories held together by the shared thread of Apollo.
Howl On was released to widespread critical acclaim and was followed by a successful tour of the UK, Europe and America, including the highly regarded South by South West festival in America and a memorable performance at the Glastonbury Festival.
THE SAILOR'S REVENGE
The Sailor’s Revenge is the outcome of a creative collaboration between Bap and Mark Knopfler - All the songs were written by Bap, but Mark Knopfler was closely involved in every stage of the project from planning right through to release. Mark Knopfler recorded and produced and played guitar on The Sailor's Revenge, at his studio at British Grove.
The songs on The Sailor's Revenge are of a reflective nature, and include "Shimnavale" which was inspired by the area of the same name in the vicinity of the Mourne Mountains in Newcastle, Northern Ireland; and Jimmy Sanchez which was inspired by the rescue of the youngest of the Chilean miners.
As well as producing and playing guitar, Knopfler also sings backing vocals on the final track of the album "The Celtic Sea" Also playing on the album are some of Mark Knopfler's most highly respected session musicians, such as Jerry Douglas, Glenn Worf, Guy Fletcher, John McCusker, Michael McGoldrick.
The Sailor's Revenge is widely regarded as featuring Bap's most mature and sophisticated songwriting to date - assisted of course by Knopfler's distinctive, delicious guitar and tasteful widescreen production. It was released on Proper Records in Jan 2013, and received widespread critical acclaim internationally including No 1 - Best of 2012 in influential American magazine No Depression where it was described as "truly a masterpiece from a man who is finally comfortable in his place in the world - The Celtic Blood On The Tracks” It was also listed by Mojo in the Top 10 Americana albums of 2013.
Bap has toured widely in support of the Sailor's Revenge - throughout the UK as well as in countries such as Italy, Holland, Germany, France and Norway. Additionally, to celebrate the USA of The Sailor's Revenge (Deluxe), Bap performed at various venues in East Coast America, including Washington, New York, Philadelphia and Boston.
LET'S START AGAIN
Bap’s album Let’s Start Again is his 6th album of solo material. While Bap usually records in England and America, he wanted to bring together some of the top musicians in his native Northern Ireland to play on Let’s Start Again. The most local of the local talents is bass player and harmony vocalist, Brenda Kennedy, Bap’s wife. Brenda is also a regular member of Bap’s live band, as are two of the album’s other musicians –drummer Rabb Bennett and virtuoso guitarist Gordy McAllister.
After the Celtic melancholy of The Sailor’s Revenge, there is a more upbeat roots-y Americana feel to Let’s Start Again. The country-roots style of the record is something that Bap’s co-producer, Mudd Wallace first realised would suit Bap as far back as the early 80’s. At that time, Bap was a Belfast power pop punk and Mudd was producing Bap’s band, as well as the debut album of cult Belfast Americana band The Mighty Shamrocks. For the next 30 years, the Shamrocks’ album was to lie in the vaults, until 2012 when Bap and Mudd became involved in its eventual release. This was to be the spark that brought the two old friends back into the studio together to create Let’s Start Again.
Let’s Start Again is due for full international release in CD and vinyl formats by Proper Records Ltd on 3 Feb 2014.